Chickens and Compost: A Match Made in Heaven
Compost and Red Worms Are Good for Your Chickens and Your Soil
Reading Time: 5 minutes
Consider this: Two 20-acre parcels right next to each other. Both families have flocks of chickens. Both families feed their chickens identical layer crumbles. But one family has fat hens, the other has skinny hens. Why the difference?
Very likely the difference is compost. The family with fat hens has cows, that produce manure, which is piled in a generous heap (along with hay and other detritus) to break down into compost for the garden. The chickens spend most of their waking hours on this compost pile, scratching for worms and maggots, taking dust baths along the edges, and otherwise behaving as chickens are supposed to behave.
While compost piles are not a critical element for healthy hens, it is certainly a match made in heaven. It’s not just the extra protein the birds get from their foraging. Believe it or not, there is also a psychological benefit for the birds. Confined birds are bored birds, and bored birds are likely to get into trouble (pecking each other, eating their own eggs, etc.). Scratching for food is what chickens are born to do. Why not give them what they want?
Types of Compost
Clearly not everyone can keep larger livestock to provide convenient quantities of manure for the benefit of chickens. Fortunately, chickens aren’t fussy. They’ll scratch in anything that attracts worms, flies, and other protein sources (collectively called biota). Compost can be made from a wide variety of organic debris, even in suburban settings.
If you don’t want to be slavishly scientific about your compost pile — if your primary goal is to give your chickens something to do and supplement their feed — then you can just dump organic waste into a pile and give the chickens free access. Yard waste, leaves, kitchen scraps (carrot peelings, onion skins, etc.), and other forms of organic material are all grist to a compost pile. The action of scratching hens naturally sifts smaller particles lower in the pile, where it breaks down and can then be used on a garden. Avoid putting meat scraps, citrus, fats, dairy, or dog and cat feces into a compost pile.
For a tidier approach, three pallets wired together with one open side make an ideal area for corralling compost, though some wily hens have learned to use the pallets as a jumping-off point to escape their pen. If this happens, try confining the compost to an open-sided chicken-wire enclosure held up with T-posts within your chicken yard.
For a quicker and more scientific approach — where the pile generates heat and rapidly breaks down to produce compost suitable for gardens — you will need a least a cubic yard of material enclosed on all four sides. It should consist of both carbon “brown” and nitrogen “green” material. The majority of the pile should be “brown” matter (such as leaves, sawdust, wood chips, coffee and tea grounds, dead plants, straw) with a generous layering of “green” material (livestock manure, aquatic leaves, eggshells, garden weeds, grass clippings, kitchen scraps). Layered together, the pile should be moist but not soggy. For obvious reasons, the compost heap must be accessible to the birds if the goal is for them to eat biota. Some people provide “ladders” for the ladies to climb inside.
The components of a compost pile — whether formal or informal — should be diverse enough that materials don’t become matted or waterlogged. Grass clippings piled together are famous for becoming a slimy mat which even chickens can’t penetrate, so make sure the clippings are mixed with other “brown” matter.
It never hurts to sprinkle a calcium source, such as ground-up oyster shells, among the other materials in a compost pile — not necessarily for composting down but to give the hens a nutritional boost. Eggshells also work, but make sure they’re crushed or the hens may learn to eat their own eggs.
Keep in mind some foods are toxic to chickens, notably avocadoes and dried beans, which should never be fed directly to poultry. However, chickens have a pretty good idea of what they shouldn’t eat. Besides, the birds are unlikely to eat the compost itself, though they may pick at various vegetable scraps. What chickens love is the insects and worms — the biota — attracted to the waste. This provides a high-protein snack as well as healthy habits such as scratching through the material. They also reduce the compost pile by shredding and scratching it to bits, which in turn enhances how fast it breaks down while saving you the trouble of turning over the compost pile. It’s a win-win scenario.
It’s one thing to dump organic waste into a pile to compost down, providing worms and other biota as a sort of secondary benefit. It’s another thing to deliberately cultivate worms in the first place for the benefit of chickens.
The easiest worms to cultivate are red worms (Eisenia fetida), the critter most commonly used in indoor vermiculture compost bins. Red worms are small, but they’re hardy, prolific, and voracious (they eat about half their body weight each day). They’re also sociable and live in colonies. Finding a writhing mass of wiggling worms around a food source is not unusual.
Red worms differ from typical garden worms by their preference for the upper layer of topsoil and ground litter (as opposed to burrowing deep). When hungry, they climb up rather than burrow down, which is why they work so well in stackable compost systems where food is added to the top.
Enterprising chicken owners can take advantage of red worms’ prolific breeding to supplement their fowl. Keep in mind chickens need a variety of different foods, not just red worms. It would take something like 100 worms (or more) per bird per day to keep them on a worm diet, so cultivating enough worms to sustain this level of consumption would be difficult. Worms should be considered at most a dietary supplement.
Vermiculture is a science unto itself and is usually geared toward managing household organic waste rather than feeding chickens, but nothing says you can’t ramp up worm production to benefit your poultry. Worms can be cultivated both indoors (stackable bins) and outdoors (deep litter, compost piles). Outdoor piles can be “planted” or “inoculated” with red worms and given the opportunity to breed and expand before letting the chickens at the piles.
Balance is Key
Happy chickens need protection from predators and weather, fresh water, proper food, and a job. Their job is to obtain food, which they do by scratching. Give your hens a job by providing them with compost to scratch through. Not only will this take care of your organic food waste, but it makes for fat, healthy, happy egg-laying hens. Chickens with a job – who are entertained – are less likely to engage in bad behaviors.
Chickens and compost: Truly a match made in heaven.
Originally published in the April/May 2020 issue of Backyard Poultry and regularly vetted for accuracy.